Dustin Lance Black. Dustin Lance Black. I kept seeing that name in big bold faced letters as I sat in awe of the trailer as it rolled before one of my recent trips to the theatre to watch some faire. Why would a screenwriter have his name plastered in bigger letters than an Oscar buzzed lead actor? Well, after seeing Milk, I can tell you that for the first time since Diablo Cody (the stripper-cum-Oscar-winner), do we have a writer who is deserving of the spotlight that usually left for actors and directors. Milk is not only one of the best movies of 2008, but it is also one of the best movies for the struggle of equal rights ever made.
From the beginning, we see a new Sean Penn. Penn portrays Harvey Milk, the title character in this Gus Van Sant masterpiece. This is probably the most clichéd statement around, but Penn becomes the embodiment of Harvey. I could picture no other actor that could pull off this role. Over Penn’s film career, he has taken on many roles involving a lot of brooding, but this time around, Milk has Penn being not only his most amusing and flamboyant but his most likable and affable. Since it is mostly Milk’s story being told, this is very important the film, as it progresses from probably the most graphic homosexual scenes on mainstream Hollywood film to the politics and tragedy that brings about the conclusion of Milk’s life.
Since Penn is most assuredly going to get plenty of buzz for his performance, I feel that there are quite a few other folks that deserve mention as well. The supporting cast is strong, and James Franco busts out in a big way. Unlike the stoner he played in Pineapple Express, Franco’s Scott Smith is a much more tender role than Franco really seems to be able to sink his teeth into. Then there is Emile Hirsch who is completely unrecognizable from his stint in Speed Racer this past summer. What a transformation! To be so young and to be able to handle such a powerful role speaks volumes of his ability.
Then there is Diego Luna, who is at once likeable and at times distressingly annoying, mostly because of the character he is portraying, and it all adds to the mix of love, sex, and political mish-mash that Harvey Milk has to deal with. And last, but certainly far from least, is James Brolin. Coming off his spotlight role as George Bush in W., he plays another nuanced, conflicted, complicated, and borderline psycho politician as Supervisor Dan White. Unlike W. where at times, his portrayal felt like too much like a caricature, Dan White is more of a human being. We see his gradual isolation and desolation and how it comes in contrast with his political persona. This is often painful to watch but that is only because it his presence is both intimidating and vulnerable.
In conclusion, Milk is a must watch film for 2008, not only to learn a little bit about the history of the 1970s, as the film seamlessly cuts historical footage in with live action, but with words that will help in the political turmoil of today. There can never be a time such as now to have hope. And that is what Milk gives to us with his final words. “You gotta give ‘em hope!”
5 / 5 stars
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